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Theme of Equality in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Works of Thoreau and Douglass

Updated January 5, 2022
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Theme of Equality in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Works of Thoreau and Douglass essay

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Visionary author Henry David Thoreau was born and lived in Concord, Massachusetts where he later met another influential author in Ralph Waldo Emerson. After time Thoreau’s writings were influenced by Emerson and other transcendentalists. Thoreau then developed his own original writings that support the antislavery revolution. Thoreau wrote the very controversial essay in “Resistance to Civil Government”. “Resistance to Civil Government” was not initially popular and was even viewed as radical due to Thoreau’s completely new intrinsic views. However, the essay proved to be very influential, and ahead of its years. The essay brought an unfound awareness of Civil Rights and made gains towards independence.

Born a slave in 1818, Frederick Douglass had remained a slave until freedom was granted to him in 1865. However, throughout that time Douglass was a known fugitive due to illegally escaping slavery. However, Douglass had become one of the most important and influential abolitionists of the 19th century. Sharing traits with the other slaves he could relate to them like not other strengthening his persuasion amongst them. Douglass vigorously supported equality for all, and even supported and lectured for women’s rights. Douglass shamelessly attacked American racism and more specifically slavery, and promoted all means of revolution including violence. Douglass ended up giving the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

This speech brought awareness of the hypocrisy and injustice slaves were facing in the U.S. Herman Melville was unusually unpopular author in his time, but he wrote literary pieces that are influential and marveled at today. Influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Shakespeare, Melville went on to become an important writer who “had mastered ‘the great Art of Telling the Truth”. Melville ended up writing the literary masterpiece “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” that symbolically held a hidden message of a greater social problem. Melville was a big advocate for equality, and more specifically supported the fight against social injustice. Thoreau, Douglass, and Melville have all created many influential pieces that have shaped America.

All three authors argued for equality amongst the people of the United States, and were extremely inspiring to their revolutionary ideas. “Resistance to Civil Government”, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”, and “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” share both common and contrasting ideas that ultimately represent the overarching theme of equality. Thoreau, Douglass, and Melville all share and teach the valuable lesson of taking action in order to receive equality. In “Resistance to Civil Government” Thoreau expressed the idea of taking action in order for change to happen.

Thoreau wrote, “All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or back gammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obli­gation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”

Thoreau argued in his essay that simply voting or thinking virtuous thoughts wasn’t enough, but one must act virtuous for change to truly happen. Frederick Douglass was also a big believer in that action was necessary for change. He often called upon his audience to revolt from slavery with any means necessary. In “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” Douglass is quoted saying “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.” (79) Douglass is calling for action, and believed that was the means for change to occur in America. Herman Melville in “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” teaches the same valuable lesson of how necessary action can be, but through hidden meaning.

In the story the character Bartleby dies in the end without any real change occurring. Bartleby simply answers his boss with, “I’d prefer not to.” The character was subliminally protesting social inequality, but without any action his voice and opinion was never heard. Another prominent message expressed by Thoreau, Douglass, and Melville was the danger of conforming for the sake of convenience. Thoreau states in “Resistance to Civil Government”, “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then…” Change could not be incited when the people are merely conforming to the regular. Douglass preached this same message in his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.”

In his speech Douglass is quoted saying, “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”(14-21)

Frederick Douglass preached to his audience to not participate in Fourth of July as it was hypocrisy to Slaves who didn’t share the same freedom. Instead of conforming to the norm and celebrating this day, Douglass saw it as an insult to him and slaves worldwide. This same message can be viewed in Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” When Bartleby begins to act against his boss he’s attempting to make change, unlike his coworkers who follow directions with no questions asked. ‘I prefer not to,’ [Bartleby] replied in a flutelike tone. It seemed to me that, while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.”(27)

Bartleby began to protest his boss which in the end leaves the lawyer puzzled as he’s never experienced this behavior before. While Melville, Thoreau, and Douglass share the same idea of equality, they also differ in the ways they support the concept. Thoreau believed in resolving slavery on peaceful terms. “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

Thoreau believed that if enough citizens of the United States decided to not pay their taxes then the government would hear their opinions and possibly change the slavery laws. This way being un-violent and simply a peaceful revolution that Thoreau saw could be possible. Melville also shared these same ideals. In “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”, Bartleby makes his un-violent protest by simply disobeying the lawyer. “(Narrator) ‘The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.’ ‘I would prefer not,’ [Bartleby] replied, with his back still towards me. ‘You must.’ He remained silent. (76-77).” Even facing termination Bartleby stayed true to his peaceful protest. Wanting change Bartleby didn’t exert violence, but found another way to get his point across. In contrast, Douglass was a big believer in the exact opposite.

Douglass believed that abolitionist citizens and slaves needed to act in violence for America to wake up. “…he increasingly explored the possibilities of abolitionist violence. As early as 1849 Douglass endorsed slave violence, telling a Boston audience that he would welcome news that the slaves had revolted and “were engaged in spreading death and devastation” throughout the South (Benjamin Quarles, Allies for Freedom [1974], p. 67). After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which put the federal government in the business of capturing and returning runaway slaves, he publicly urged resistance to the law, with violence if necessary.”(1)

Another contrasting idea was the argument each of the authors supported. While they were all in support for equality, there were two different examples of equality that the authors backed. Thoreau and Douglass were attempting to abolish slavery, while as Melville was trying to bring awareness of social inequality. Thoreau made a big push for a revolution to abolish slavery. “First, Thoreau refused to pay a tax to Massachusetts as a means of withdrawing his allegiance from a federal government which was protecting slavery…Thoreau also deliberately violated the Fugitive Slave Law by helping several escaped slaves avoid recapture.”(87,88) Not to mention he also expresses many key ideas to the world in “Resistance to Civil Government.”

Similarly, Douglass also expressed many revolutionary ideals to the world in his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” Douglass is quoted saying here, “My subject, then, fellow citizens, is ‘American Slavery.’ I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing here, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July.” (28-30)

Here, Douglass brings awareness not only about how terrible slavery is, but also the hypocrisy of the celebration of the Fourth of July. On the other hand, Melville is protesting for equality, but more specifically social equality. Melville uses Bartleby in “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” as an example of the lower class struggle to fight big money. Disappointingly the story ends with Bartleby being “Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred. I paused, then went close up to him, stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping.

Something prompted me to touch him. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet. (128) Bartleby like others in the real world their voice is hardly heard, and their efforts to resolve social inequality are feeble. Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and Herman Melville were great authors that were very influential to their revolutionary ideals. Sharing common ideas, the authors brought awareness of the inequalities that America faced. Although, they shared some differences the overarching theme of equality was present amongst all of them.

Theme of Equality in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Works of Thoreau and Douglass essay

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Theme of Equality in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Works of Thoreau and Douglass. (2022, Jan 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/theme-of-equality-in-bartleby-the-scrivener-and-works-of-thoreau-and-douglass/

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